On the 15th of September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black girls attending Sunday school. John Petts, a stained glass artist from Carmarthenshire launched a campaign to fund and create a new window as a gift to the church from the people of Wales.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Due to its central location the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham was one of the primary religious, cultural and social institutions for the black community, where leaders like Martin Luther King and Paul Robeson regularly spoke. It naturally developed to become the organising centre for the local civil rights movement, providing strength and safety for people at the forefront of the black anti-segregation protest and rallies in Birmingham, the most racist city in America. On the 15 September 1963, a fortnight after Martin Luther King's 'I have a Dream' speech, and days after Governor George Wallace said that in order to stop integration Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals", Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb at the church that killed four black girls, injured several others, and wrecked the building, smashing the stained-glass windows. Mass violence broke out across the city and the National Guard was called in to restore order.
The callous murder of innocent lives bought global condemnation, revulsion and sympathy and city leaders were forced to deal with the racism. Rewards were offered for the arrest of the bombers and Martin Luther King sent Governor George Wallace a telegram stating that "the blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created … the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.” The girls names and faces became a symbol of the struggle and justice, and the explosion marked a turning point in the American Civil Rights Movement, having the opposite effect of what was intended, and became the catalyst to ensuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Justice for the victims took much longer – although four individuals were immediately suspected, their prosecution stretched out over decades. In May 2013 President Obama signed a bill that posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the four murdered girls.
The Wales Window
News of the tragedy stirred John Petts, a stained glass artist, at his home in Llansteffan, over 4,000 miles away: "the news on the radio … left me sick at heart … as a father … I was horrified by the death of the children; as an artist-craftsman, hearing that the stained-glass windows of the church had been destroyed, I was appalled … and I thought to myself … what can we do about this?" "Could not some of us … join together in a positive gesture of Christian sympathy in the face of destructive evil, and, as a token, put back at least one of those windows." He contacted David Cole, the Western Mail's editor, who enthusiastically took up the idea and the next day the Western Mail launched a campaign with the headline: 'Alabama: Chance for Wales to Show the Way''. It was agreed that individual donations would not exceed half a crown (12½ p). "We don't want some rich man … paying for the whole window. We want it to be given by the people of Wales."
The appeal gripped the imagination of the Welsh people, and money flooded in from churches, chapels and schoolchildren. Wales had a strong tradition of Sunday School, and the thought of young girls being killed whilst attending a place of sanctuary, shook the nation. Paul Robeson, a popular hero in Wales due to his support of unemployed Welsh miners had made many sympathetic to the plight of black Americans, and there was also a long-standing presence of black people in Cardiff. The £500 target was reached within days and the fund closed at £900.
A telegram was sent to the Rev. John Cross: 'The people of Wales offer to recreate and erect a stained glass window to replace the one shattered in the bombing of your church. They do this as a gesture of comfort and support.' A reply accepting the offer was received and stating that 'Wales was the only country to offer such direct and material assistance'. The window became a symbol that people around the world cared about their suffering and sacrifice, whilst those geographically closest saw them as alien and inferior. “It was clear that the window in its context of violence must make a statement and an impact both simple and strong – as positive and simple as Christ's message". Petts felt that his original design avoided the real issues, and was 'too soft'. The Church did not want a provocative statement at such a crucial stage in the Civil Rights movement, and John Petts stressed that he did not want to do anything that might cause further strife. But "all that I saw and heard there … strengthened my conviction that to make merely a lovely window in coloured glass would not be enough".
"Eventually one idea grew in strength: the figure of a negro, yet of Christ too, a suffering figure in a crucified gesture, with one hand flung wide in protest, the other in acceptance … remembering the sight of a negro figure twisting under the assault of fire-hoses, his arms up-flung. The jets of water transfixing the figure became the bar of a Cross symbolising all violence: the street hoses of the South, the bullet-streams of Sharpeville, the arrow of the spear". As the Reverend Arthur Price explains, the representation of Christ as a black man was controversial "for many people in the white community during that time, to say that Jesus Christ was black and of African descent would be blasphemous" "… the major message that we try to take out of the window is not so much trying to identify Christ's colour, but knowing that Christ identifies with us, to the white community is that the Jesus you love identifies himself with the African American community, so you are really crucifying him again when you persecute someone who does not look like you". Patterned across the base of the design are Christ's words "You do it to Me", spelling out the Christian message of brotherly love. Below are the words "Given by the people of Wales, UK MCMLXIV".
John Petts used deep blues and purples that glow in the strong light, with a cross of light coloured glass outlining the figure. A rainbow crowns the head, symbolising racial diversity and unity and promising the end of the storm. The design was approved, and the completed window displayed in Cardiff before being shipped to America. John Petts, David Cole and the Mayor of Cardiff sent a telegram to the dedication service on Sunday 6th June 1965: "The thoughts of the people of Wales will be with you during your dedication service. May the Wales Window symbolise the reaffirmation of Christian love and unity". At the service pastor John Cross said that: "it might serve as a constant reminder that there are persons in the world whose hearts are filled with love and brotherly kindness."
The church has become an important historical landmark, attracting thousands of visitors, and the window is regarded as one of the key icons of the American Civil Rights Movement, a powerful protest against intolerance and injustice.
John Petts (1914 –1991) was born in London on the 10th of January 1914. He studied art in London where he met his future wife Brenda Chamberlain (1912–1971). They moved to North Wales in 1934, where they founded the Caseg Press in 1937, but they separated in 1943.
He was appointed Assistant Director of Visual Arts for Wales in 1951, but resigned in 1956 to concentrate on his art, and moved with his second wife Kusha to Llansteffan. He was appointed lecturer at Carmarthen School of Art in 1957, where he learnt the techniques of stained glass work, and resigned in 1961 to become a freelance designer. In the late 1980's he moved his studio to Abergavenny, where he died on the 26 August 1991. His archives, purchased from his widow in 1994, are housed at the National Library of Wales.
The Birmingham Window designs
John Petts' designs for the 'Wales window' were donated to the National Library of Wales by Dr Robert E. Morgan in 1970. They are an important record of Wales' reaction to the terrible racist events in America during this period. The collection contains a series of twelve images that include studies and preliminary designs, and the final design for the window, and a number of related material that include press and newspaper cuttings and printed programmes relating to the designing, unveiling and dedication of the window.
- John Petts, Welsh Horizons, The 1983 Radio Wales Lecture, 1983;
- Diane Davies, The Wales Window, Friends newsletter [National Museums and Galleries of Wales], Feb. 2012, p. 19-21;
- Firsthand – Dai Smith visits artist John Petts in Abergavenny to discuss his career and workpieces, Radio Wales, 1989
- Gary Younge, "American civil rights: the Welsh connection." The Guardian, March 6, 2011.
- Gary Younge, The Wales Window of Alabama, Radio 4, 10 March 2011
- Alabama church bombing victims honoured by Welsh window, BBC Wales news website, viewed 8 Jan 2014.
- A Brief History of 16th Street Baptist Church, 16th Street Baptist Church website, viewed 8 Jan 2014.
- 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Guide to Black History, viewed 8 Jan 2014.
- Birmingham Church bombing, History.com website, viewed 8 Jan 2014.
- The Wales Window, Patheos website, viewed 8 Jan 2014.
- 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Wikipedia website, viewed 8 Jan 2014.